Thursday, July 16, 2009

Driving the Coke

As we drove up the Coquihalla Highway last week on our way to a family wedding (Brian's nephew) in Vernon British Columbia, we enjoyed the opportunity to travel for the first time in a couple of years on this magnificent stretch of road.

The Coke is the local nickname for the highway, running from Hope to Merritt to Kamloops, with another branch, the Coquihalla Connector, going to Westbank and Kelowna in the Okanagan. It was built as part of the infrastructure development associated with Vancouver's wildly successful Expo '86. It was a toll highway until 2008, when the Provincial Government decided to make it "free" after 22 years of being paid off. A short two-lane section on the Connector was recently four-laned as well, making it one fastastic freeway, stupendous superhighway, or however else you want to describe it.

Our drive was beautiful in both directions, but, living in Hope so long, we well remember other drives that weren't nearly as much fun. Once we were on our way to a ski weekend around Easter weekend, and spent several hours just below the Great Bear Snowshed, not too far out of Hope. We finally drove our trusty little Pathfinder around the side of the snowshed with a couple of other cars, using a dirt access road, holding our breath and hoping that nothing would slide down the roof of the shed onto us. You can see that very road from a bicylist's viewpoint here (scroll down to the second photo). From there it was an icy but quiet drive on a deserted highway to a Merritt motel around 1:30 a.m. There's a reason Brian's brother and others describe it as a "ten-month winter highway."

There's a particularly steep grade climbing out of Hope, not necessarily the steepest grade around, but looong and unrelenting, and again this weekend we saw steaming radiators parked on the side of the road. Several Audis mysteriously caught fire and burned in the early years. The blogging bicylist noted above describes it thusly:

On the uphill parts of the Coquihalla Highway between Hope and the Coquihalla Summit there are frequent blackened sections of asphalt where overheated cars and trucks have caught fire and burned to a crisp. The burning car phenomenon has been an issue ever since the Coquihalla was opened. At one point a certain model of Audi was burning up nearly every week. These days it appears that sport utility vehicles are the most frequent bonfires on the shoulders of the Coquihalla. The burnt out hulks are sometimes left and no one picks them up for days. Keep an eye out if you are cycling at night, the blackened car skeletons are hard to see in the dark. There were two burnt-up cars abandoned on the shoulder last time I rode the Coquihalla. Further along a truck was on fire and the driver was surprised to learn that the nearest fire truck was 60 km away and would obviously not be attending his conflagration.

We were long impressed that those Audi fires never really developed any "legs" as news stories to the best of our knowledge. A casual search only yields a few blog-type entries such as a couple of comments here.

The highway cuts through a part of the province that was relatively inaccessible until it was built. At the time it was described as North America's last major road-building project of the 20th century and it still impresses us, especially on a sunny day.

Brian's high school band performed in Hope's Memorial Park when the Premier and other officials opened the highway. That former premier, William "Bill" Bennett, spoke last year in Kelowna at another opening ceremony, that of the new bridge named in his honor. Nice to see him doing so well!

The route near Hope runs along the path of the Kettle Valley Railroad, also known as McCulloch's Wonder, after the engineer who designed it. Andrew McCulloch was a fan of Shakespeare, and after a day being lowered in a basket to design the famous Othello Tunnels (also known as the Quintette Tunnels) near Hope, he undoubtedly spent some of his evenings around the campfire reading the Bard. So what if he did, one might ask?

Well, McCulloch named a variety of places along the road after some of his favorite characters. There's long been a neighborhood area a little way out of Hope known as Othello. If you drive the Coke, you'll notice the highway signs placed where McCulloch named some of his station points: Lear, Jessica, Portia, Iago, Romeo, Juliet... Brian's personal favorite, emblazoned on a big green exit sign, is Shylock Road. He also wrote the Highways Minister shortly after the opening to let them know the "Falstaff" sign had been printed with an extra letter l. How many students of Shakespeare must have passed these signs over the past 23 years wondering about those names! The railway eventually closed in the 1950s, as the Canadian Pacific couldn't keep up with the snow removal and repair costs. But what a history it was while it lasted, and there's one group that even sings about it.

Take a look at the highway cams here. A beautiful drive in good weather and an exciting drive at other times!

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